"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mr. Toast's close brush with fame

Foreword: I've been asked recently if I had any contact with famous people during my broadcasting career. In fact, I have met a few notable folks. I shook hands and chatted briefly with Jimmy Carter before he became president, I hobnobbed over a drink with Dan Rather at a broadcasting convention in Las Vegas, I met John Kay of Steppenwolf at a party in New York City, and I once got up on stage to introduce "The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band" when they performed at a concert in the Florida town where I was a DJ at the time.

But in contrast to simply meeting a celebrity, there have been two occasions in my life when I've actually spent “quality time” with someone famous. Coincidentally, one of those times also ranks as the single-most embarrassing moment in my life. Here is that story.

-o-

When I first moved to St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands) in the summer of 1968, I had just dropped out of college at the half-way mark. My grades were terrible, largely due to the fact that I was spending virtually every waking moment of my life at school working for the campus radio station. Music and radio had become my calling, and minor things like studying, classes and exams seemed like a trivial bother in comparison. Consequently, my schoolwork declined to the point where I was politely asked by the administration not to return the following semester without remedial catch-up tutoring to improve my grades. This was known as "pro", or "being on probation". It's a very small step above "flunking out", but not by much; most people who go on pro don't return.

Needless to say, my parents were less than pleased by this turn of events when I returned home from college in mid-May. My father repeatedly reminded me what a failure I was, and how his hard-earned money spent on my tuition had been wasted. Home was not going to be a pleasant place to spend the summer.

Coincidentally, my sister was at home for a visit then as well. Nearly ten years older than me, she was cool in ways that I could only hope to be someday. At that particular time she was a fashion model, living in St. Thomas with her boyfriend-photographer who shot pictures for tourist brochures and other advertising. My sister! A model! Living in sin! On a tropical island! I thought this was sophisticated enough to begin with, but because my father was even more appalled by this fact than he was about me dropping out of school, it only cemented my sister's ultimate hipness in my mind.

We hadn't seen each other in quite some time prior to this, and for several nights, she and I stayed up late talking about my predicament. I didn't know whether I wanted to attempt to get back into college or not; I wasn't even sure what I was going to do for the summer. It was then, after several beers had been consumed, that she spoke the fateful words: "Well, why don't you come back to Saint T with me for a couple of months until you figure something out?"

Imagining a scene of swaying palm trees and beautiful sandy beaches populated by gorgeous babes in bikinis, I jumped at this opportunity. Over the protestations of my father, a week later I was looking at this view from my sister's balcony:


Life was good.

There was one small problem: while I was living rent-free with my sister, I still needed money for sundry expenses (read: alcohol) and felt that I should at least compensate her for feeding me. Clearly, a job was in order. Since my most recent experience had been as a DJ, I thought I'd try the local radio station first. Cobbling together my meager resume and an aircheck tape, I headed off to one of only two stations on the island, WSTA.

Fortunately, I happened to stop by WSTA at a uniquely auspicious moment. The station had just been sold to a gentleman by the name of John Dale, who was the former manager of New York City's WNEW. Mr. Dale had moved to St. Thomas for his retirement, and being somewhat wealthy, decided to buy the station mainly as a rich man's toy to occupy his time. He brought with him a big-city appreciation of how "good radio" works and what it's supposed to sound like. Upon his arrival, the station had no format to speak of, but consisted of mainly calypso music and soul tunes in no particular order. While this was fine with the locals, much of St. Thomas's population at any given time was comprised of tourists, and Mr. Dale wanted music that they were familiar with as well, in order to entice advertising agencies to buy time on the station for national clients. None of the station's staff knew much about this "rock and roll" thing except that it was what a lot of statesiders listened to. Mr. Dale was looking for someone with radio savvy who was familiar with the music.

At about that moment, I walked in the door looking for a job. I was hired virtually on the spot.

After a couple of months of doing a shift from 10 AM to 2 PM and playing this new music, my show started to get fairly popular. My antics on the air were very different from what most folks had been used to previously, and I became known as "The Crazy White Boy". By this time I was the station's music director as well. We still played calypso and soul during the rest of the day for the locals, but my midday program was an oasis of rock and pop, or what was then called "top 40". It was still pretty mild by any standards ... The Fifth Dimension, Petula Clark, The Monkees, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers, that sort of thing. But then Mr. Dale became interested in a new kind of music that went by a variety of names -- some called it "progressive rock", others called it "underground", or "AOR" (album-oriented rock). His buddies back in New York were telling him it was getting pretty popular there, so we decided to try it out on WSTA. However, we also thought it would be better in the evening instead of the middle of the day, so my shift moved from six to midnight. I started playing album cuts by artists that many people had never heard before ... Steppenwolf, Blood Sweat & Tears, Spirit, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin, for example.

This music in its late-night slot attracted a whole new audience. For the most part, the locals didn't get it; it was just too far out and different. But many of my listeners were tourists and ex-pats who were used to hearing these bands back home and simply couldn't find them anywhere else on the radio in the V.I. People called in to make requests and comments, and I struck up some friendships over the phone. One of these was a lady by the name of Lee, who liked the music I played and would tune in almost every night. She worked for a man named Norman Willock, who had a place in St. Thomas but traveled a lot, and employed Lee to take care of his house when he wasn't there. Now, calling his place a "house" doesn't come close to doing it justice; "luxury resort" would be more like it. This huge, multi-leveled, white art-deco mansion was right on the water with its own private beach, and had a gorgeous outdoor patio overlooking the Caribbean. (Years later, it was sold and turned into a villa-style hotel called Lime Tree. A fire on New Year's Eve 1999 caused extensive damage, and after several subsequent remodelings it's today known as Bluebeard's Beach Club.) As it turned out, Norm could well afford it: he was a partner along with legendary rock impresario Bill Graham in New York's Fillmore East concert hall, although I was unaware of this fact at the time.

Anyway, Lee had asked me to drop by Norm's place one afternoon, as she had a tape of some new band that she wanted me to listen to. I knocked at the door, and a lanky long-haired-hippy kind of guy answered. Lee wasn't there right now, he said, but was due back shortly. He introduced himself as Spencer, and asked if I would I like to come in and wait for her. I said "sure". We walked onto the patio, where a pretty girl with long dark hair was seated. She had on a long flowing peasant dress, nothing gaudy or pretentious. She looked like any other typical 1968 hippy-chick, and casually told me her name was Grace. I said hello, and the three of us sat down to talk. As was the custom of the time, a joint was produced and passed around; when that one was gone, another was lit up. It was some particularly good shit, and before long you might say I was seriously stoned. As in, wasted, ripped, totally blown away.

Things got increasingly animated and hilarious as time went on. I was having a great time with these two freaks, just ordinary folks who liked to party and listen to music. So it was altogether natural that at some point, "music" became the topic of conversation, and I happened to mention that back in high school I used to play for a band. Spencer said he played drums, which of course, caused me to ask him The Question:

"So, man, you ever play in a band?"

Pause.

"Yeah, man, you ever hear of the Jefferson Airplane?"

For just a moment inside my muddled brain, it seemed like time stopped: the world hesitated in its rotation and there was ... this deafening silence. The realization of exactly who I had been hanging out with for the last several hours slowly seeped down into my consciousness like coffee through a filter. My face flushed, I was vaguely aware that my mouth might be open, and either the palm tree outside or possibly the room itself (I wasn't sure which) was gently swaying from side to side. I looked at Spencer. He looked amused. I looked at Grace; she was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. They were both waiting for me to say something. After staring at her for what seemed like five minutes (but was in reality just a couple of seconds), I cleared my throat, gestured toward her, and spoke.

"Um, Grace ... Slick, right?" I said, trying to appear nonchalant. She nodded, almost apologetically, it seemed. I then said the only words that came to my mind.

"Oh, WOW...."

And then we all burst out laughing.

After getting over my shock and embarrassment, I stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. Lee soon returned, made drinks and sandwiches, and we continued to chat and laugh like old friends. It was then that I learned of Norm's Fillmore connection, and that he frequently had various rock-star visitors who came down to his place for a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the music business. That evening, Spencer accompanied me to the radio station as my special guest DJ, and we played all of the Airplane's music. It was great - the highlight of my career. After they left, I never saw them in person again although their promoter did send me some copies of the band's new releases.

But I will never forget that "Oh, wow" moment. It was one of only two such moments in my entire lifetime.

Next: In which Janis Joplin makes me a hot dog.

-o-

Postscript: I was saddened to learn that Spencer Dryden died of stomach cancer on January 11, 2005 at the age of 66. His last few years were plagued by poverty and miserable luck. Hip replacement surgery left him permanently disabled, and a 2003 fire destroyed his home and all of his possessions and Airplane memorabilia. Soon thereafter, he suffered a heart attack and was told that he needed cardiac surgery. But before this could happen, he was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. See more info here, or the band's tribute page to him. Rest in peace, Spencer, and thanks for the great memories.

Spencer Dryden, 1938-2005

6 Comments:

  • At 5/15/2006 05:58:00 AM, Blogger Meander said…

    this is such a great story! thanks for sharing it.

     
  • At 5/15/2006 08:36:00 AM, Blogger Cynnie said…

    aww..that was a great story..
    I've never met anyone!..i need to get out more

     
  • At 5/15/2006 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Janelle said…

    Way cool! I loved the story and I can't wait to read about Janis making you a dog.

     
  • At 5/15/2006 02:51:00 PM, Blogger Meander said…

    that photo is so lovely i want to dive right into it...

     
  • At 5/15/2006 11:43:00 PM, Blogger April said…

    OMG!!!!! Very awesome story, however I am a HUGE HUGE HUGE Janis fan, I love her, and if you tell me that you've actually MET her and she made you a freakin' HOT DOG, I'm going to Die... just die because that is just too exciting for me... If she was still alive, I would be connected to her through the "6 degrees of separation" by only 2 degrees.... I know I sound like a freak here, but I love Janis Joplin! I can't wait to hear your story!

     
  • At 5/16/2006 11:10:00 PM, Blogger April said…

    I demand your Janis story... STAT

    please, if you don't mind... that is, if you have the time... :)


    ----------
    April, please put down that hypodermic needle you're waving at me and back ... away ... from ... the crash cart. I posted it today.

     

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home